Thanks to a combination of Louisiana swamp blues, funky rhythms and soul-deep vocals, Kenny Neal’s distinctive sound puts him at the forefront of today’s contemporary blues players.

The second-generation bluesman and recent W.C. Handy Award winner will perform at Auburn’s Midnight Blues Club and Restaurant Sunday, June 5, as part of the 2005 Sunday Night Blues Series.

Neal, along with Billy Branch, was honored for Acoustic Album of the Year earlier this month in Memphis by the Blues Foundation and his peers.

Neal was born in Baton Rouge, La., and began playing music before he was 10 years old. He learned the basics from his father, Raful, a singer and blues harmonica player. Some family friends also contributed to his early education – legends like Lazy Lester, Buddy Guy and Slim Harpo. In fact, it was Harpo who gave the crying 3-year-old a harmonica to pacify him.

Neal stopped crying that day, and eventually learned to play that harmonica. Along the way, he also mastered the bass, trumpet, piano and guitar. At age 13, he joined his father’s band and began paying his musical dues. Four years later, he was recruited and toured extensively as Guy’s bass player.

Following Guy’s advice to concentrate on his guitar playing, Neal relocated to Toronto and, along with brothers Raful Jr., Noel, Larry and Ronnie, formed the Neal Brothers Band. He later fronted Canada’s Downchild Blues Band before returning to Baton Rouge to begin his solo career. To this day, he still has a large Canadian fan base.

Teaming with producer Bob Greenlee, Neal cut a series of albums featuring not only his laid-back Baton Rouge blues, but also some funky, contemporary songs with a blend of rock and R&B. Since joining Alligator Records in 1988, his albums have been hits; and critics have hailed him as one of the best of the younger blues generation.

In 1993, he toured Africa for the U.S. government, performing in seven countries. He has played with major blues stars, including B.B. King.

“Neal is one of a mere handful of truly inventive young contemporary guitarists. He has something fresh to say, and the skills with which to say it,” according to an article in the Chicago Tribune.

Packed with punchy R&B and blues tunes, Neal’s first and only album on King Snake Records, “Bio on The Bayou,” was released in 1987. The project immediately caught the ears of Bruce Iglauer, which led to a five-album run on the Alligator label. In 1998, Neal made his debut on the Telarc label, “Blues Fallin’ Down Like Rain,” which gained him the stature critics had long predicted for him.

In 1999, he participated in “Homesick for The Road,” a recording with fellow guitarists/vocalists Debbie Davies and Tab Benoit. Both artists will appear at the Midnight Blues Club on July 17 and Sept. 11, respectively. Neal’s most recent solo CD, “One Step Closer,” came out in 2001.

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